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Summary and book reviews of Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew by Catherine Lacey X
Pew by Catherine Lacey
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  • Published:
    May 2020, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Book Summary

A figure with no discernible identity appears in a small, religious town, throwing its inhabitants into a frenzy.

In a small unnamed town in the American South, a church congregation arrives to a service and finds a figure asleep on a pew. The person is genderless, racially ambiguous, and refuses to speak. One family takes the strange visitor in and nicknames them Pew.

As the town spends the week preparing for a mysterious Forgiveness Festival, Pew is shuttled from one household to the next. The earnest and seemingly well-meaning townspeople see conflicting identities in Pew, and many confess their fears and secrets to them in one-sided conversations. Pew listens and observes while experiencing brief flashes of past lives or clues about their origins. As days pass, the void around Pew's presence begins to unnerve the community, whose generosity erodes into menace and suspicion. Yet by the time Pew's story reaches a shattering and unsettling climax at the Forgiveness Festival, the secret of their true nature―as a devil or an angel or something else entirely―is dwarfed by even larger truths.

Pew, Catherine Lacey's third novel, is a foreboding, provocative, and amorphous fable about the world today: its contradictions, its flimsy morality, and the limits of judging others based on their appearance. With precision and restraint, one of our most beloved and boundary-pushing writers holds up a mirror to her characters' true selves, revealing something about forgiveness, perception, and the faulty tools society uses to categorize human complexity.

SLEEP

IF YOU EVER NEED TO—and I hope you never need to, but a person cannot be sure—if you ever need to sleep, if you are ever so tired that you feel nothing but the animal weight of your bones, and you're walking along a dark road with no one, and you're not sure how long you've been walking, and you keep looking down at your hands and not recognizing them, and you keep catching a reflection in darkened windows and not recognizing that reflection, and all you know is the desire to sleep, and all you have is no place to sleep, one thing you can do is look for a church.

What I know about churches is that they usually have many doors and often at least one of those doors, late at night, has been left unlocked. The reason churches have so many doors is that people tend to enter and leave churches in groups, in a hurry. It seems people have a lot of reasons for entering a church and perhaps even more reasons for leaving one, but the only reason I've gone to a church was to ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A quote often attributed to Leo Tolstoy states that "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." In her fourth work of fiction, a spare parable with a Southern Gothic ambiance, Catherine Lacey takes the latter story line to an extreme, using her protagonist as a symbol of everything that a community fears and dismisses as foreign. Some readers may find this short novel's vagueness off-putting and its moral ambiguity disturbing. I found the book troubling but strangely compelling at the same time.....continued

Full Review (753 words).

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(Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
[A] puzzle of a novel...Lacey has always been an economical writer, and she is as taut as she’s ever been here...These monologues make sections of the book read like Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy blended with the creeping unease of Ari Aster’s horror film Midsommar...Pew is a confusing fable – there’s too much messy realism in it for its lesson to be easily understood – but it is within its messier reaches, and its concerns with inequality and prejudice, that its boldest and most brilliant effects are found.

A.V. Club
Though the broad strokes might seem familiar, at every turn Lacey resists conventional developments...What’s most impressive is Lacey’s restraint—like Pew, she remains an observer, withholding judgment without sparing any detail. A fabulist tale with no prescribed moral, Pew has the thrum of a foreshock, setting the reader on edge with the unlikely omens of hospitality and attrition.

New York Times
What works in this novel is its Kafkaesque sense, through Pew, of free-floating anxiety and mortification of a sort that is impossible to define and thus impossible to soothe. Pew will not be characterized, interpreted, diagnosed or annotated. Pew seems to drift, like the planchette on a Ouija board...This novel walks a high wire between pretentiousness and a kind of cool, disembodied unease. For me, it fell too often into the goo pit... Lacey is such a talented writer that she casts a certain spell, even when that spell is distant and difficult to tune in.

Los Angeles Review of Books
The most impressive feat Lacey has accomplished in her newest novel is the ambitious construction of the narrator...a work that evokes the same presumptions and privileges in the reader as it does in its characters — particularly those of the townsfolk...For anyone who values literature that tests commonly held standards regarding what a character should be and how they are developed, this is a book not to be missed. Its success at pushing beyond preconceived ideas about a character’s identity and narratorial credence will be discussed among writers for years to come.

Booklist
Lacey's quietly provocative novel is brilliantly composed. She shines a light on the complexity of humans and the dangers of judging and categorizing others based on appearance, as Pew's ambiguity reveals the true nature of her characters.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[P]owerful...The action builds toward a mysterious Forgiveness Festival and a memorable climax with disturbing echoes of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' unveiled in a harrowing crescendo of call and response. Lacey's talent shines in this masterful work, her best yet.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[A] haunting fable about morality and self-delusion...Lacey—spare and elegant as ever—creates a story that feels at the same time mythological and arrestingly like life. Darkly playful; a warning without a moral

Library Journal (starred review)
Working with the spiritual and social notions of the stranger and the other, Lacey creates an amorphously Christlike figure who comes to represent whatever people want to see, good or bad. With echoes of some of Shirley Jackson's work, this is a complex, many-faceted fable about religion, hypocrisy, forgiveness, and how society defines social identity.

Author Blurb Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective
The mercurial and electric Catherine Lacey has now conjured up an of-the-moment fable of trauma and projection – one part Kaspar Hauser, one part James Purdy, and one part Rachel Cusk. The pages shimmer with implication.

Author Blurb Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under
I consumed Pew. It is the electric charge we need.

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Beyond the Book

The History of Church Pews

Illustration of church pews, 1842 In Catherine Lacey's novel Pew, the title character is given their name because they are found sleeping on a church pew. The word "pew" is thought to come from the Dutch "puye," meaning the enclosed front area of a building such as a town hall, where important proclamations were made. "Puye," in turn, may come from the Latin word "podium." Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, defined a pew as "a seat enclosed in a church."

Wooden pews as we know them today first became widespread in Europe in the 1500s following the Protestant Reformation. Before that, church floors were usually kept bare because the congregation stood during services. Some churches kept moveable, backless stone benches ...

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